Sun | May 19, 2019

The invisible hand of the diaspora

Published:Sunday | June 21, 2015 | 12:00 AM
N. Christian Stokes

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade hosted the 6th Biennial Jamaica Diaspora Conference from June 13 to 18 at the Montego Bay Conference Centre.

The conference saw the highest attendance in its short history of 3,000 persons. By any standard, that's a lot of people.

As these things go, it was well organised and executed. There were the late starts, registration hitches and technical glitches, but having taken the advice of Benjamin Franklin not to be "disturbed by accidents common or unavoidable", I did not allow these things to infect the otherwise good vibe.

At the opening plenary, titled 'Brand Jamaica and Diaspora Investment Opportunities', the erudite Professor Alvin Wint gave the most insightful and succinct presentations I have heard for a long time on what helps and hurts Jamaica's economic development.

The size of Government was one of the three areas of some consequence in which we were stymying our growth.

Within the context of public-sector wage negotiations, and the International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) tangential and coincidental comments on the same, the point resonated.

When asked if we know what the problems are, why

don't we fix them, Professor Wint became suddenly non-academic. His answer was plainly said: We are not good at implementation.

I will leave arguments on the opposing ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman with respect to the size of Government to those who have debated it for the past many decades. What I will seek to elucidate further is the matter of implementation.

Effective implementation of anything is hard; from the start up of a one-man jerk stall to national development policy and all in between. It's more try-fail-learn-try-succeed than brilliance.

Infrastructure is the work of government, not imple-mentation of business initiatives. In fact, infra-structure is one of the three roles of Government identified by Adam Smith, the other two being national defence and the administration of law.

I present no more as evidence than the vast and impressive Montego Bay Conference Centre, which for all its splendour, hosts, I understand, no more than six conferences per year. Adam Smith was right on the role of government, as he was right on the virility of the pursuit of self-interest which brings me to my next point.


So I am front and centre at the opening Plenary and look behind me expecting to see some large portion of the 3,000 attendees. A substantial number were not at that session, or for that matter, many of the other sessions.

Where were they? Networking, meeting, greeting, doing deals, making money, acting in their own interest - as distinct from acting selfishly. I am taken back to Adam Smith's words which last until this day as the fundamental articulation of capitalism.

"By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

So when Dr Harold Mignott got on stage at the closing plenary and said he was seeing too many action items for government in the presentation of main recommendations from the conference, and not enough for private initiative, he was on good ground.

The vast majority of people in the diaspora, he pointed out, had no interest in a talk shop but wanted to know what's in it for them.

There is, by some estimates US$40 billion in wealth in the diaspora, and US$5 billion in investable private savings. The money is there but it's not going to come to Jamaica out of patriotism or out of the goodness of anyone's heart.

Large numbers of Jamaicans send money home annually, to the tune of 17 per cent of Jamaica's GDP. This is not done to sheer up the national economy, it's done to support families, buy food, pay rent, and pay school fees.

That the national economy is supported more 'effectually' is an outcome not an aim.

The challenge in continuing to engage the diaspora, therefore, is to align all our interests, so that the Jamaican abroad, in seeking to improve himself or herself, does so in a way that also improves the homeland, and all are better off.

From a diaspora policy perspective, the direction has to be, as is evident from the conference, that we graciously accept good deeds and reciprocate by clearing the way for good deals.

N. Christian Stokes is founder and CEO of NCS Enterprises.